Guilt

Guilt, I think, is one of the transcendentals of life, what Karl Jaspers calls the Ultimate Situation—what is inescapably thrown with oneself into existence (if I sound too pessimistic, here I write with the irredeemable guilt of spending the last 23 minutes of my life on YouTube watching god-knows-what). It rises out of a natural human love, from that Augustinian feeling of lack and finitude and the desire to transcend it by being with that which is before (in the double sense of the term) past and future, for this Love is our primal experience of human potentiality, the I can (and I can not) that rises out of limitations. Only because we love Being, do we feel guilt. And because we are always loving, in despair or in bliss, we are constantly guilty. If we are not, then we have ceased to love and life has ceased to be worth living.

Now, onto some of the specifics of guilt. The classical definition, given by Karl Jaspers, splits guilt into four kinds: Criminal, Political, Moral, Metaphysical. They are rather self-explanatory: Criminal, the guilt of violating a criminal code; political, the guilt of one’s polis; moral, the guilt of not living up to one’s conscience; metaphysical, the guilt of existence. These four concepts helps one see how pervasive is guilt in our humanity, which may just be defined by this guilt of our impotence towards the abyss of potential as divined by love.

Criminal guilt is the guilt I have as symbolic, encultured, “castrated” being, who have internalized certain slightly arbitrary rules and practices. Political guilt is the guilt I have as social, language-speaking being, who belong to a community and is responsible towards it as a whole (and the greatest development of this is its expansion to a community we call humanity). Moral guilt is the guilt I have as free, ethical beings who can always choose my course of action (and there is no escape from this guilt because non-doing is already a choice). Metaphysical guilt is the guilt I have as a loving being characterized by a traumatic Lack, a constitutive negativity, that is exposed by the phenomenon of guilt as such.

Guilt, thus, as my humanity, is that which I have to struggle with, as Israel, “he who wrestles with God.” The wrestle with God is the wrestling with my existence as guilt and lack and deficiency.

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